Posts Tagged 'Korea'



Seoul Journal: Tell Me What It Mela-Means

Beef protest in northern Seoul, June 2008. Photo by Mr. Matt.

Beef protest in northern Seoul, June 2008. Photo by Mr. Matt.

SEOUL — DAWN IS AN OPALESCENT SOUP of haze and refracted sunlight. I pour a bowl of cereal, shuddering slightly as the flakes and bran twigs tap out a quiet cacophony on the porcelain, and reach for the milk. I pause, vaguely wondering about toxic proteins from New Zealand. The thought passes.

I take a jog through my neighborhood and see a woman selling dairy from a yellow pushcart, one of the many found in this city in the early hours. I wonder how her business has been affected. At the office, a co-worker asks if I’d like an instant coffee. I tell him tea would be better for both of us; there’s probably melamine in the creamer. I eat a sandwich for lunch and wonder briefly about what went into the cheese, the bread. At night, my wife brings home some icecream for dessert. We check the label and see “China” listed as an ingredient’s country of origin. We chuck it.

The globalization of the food chain has exploded the range of China’s melamine debacle. But here in such close proximity to the new world power, the likelihood is even greater that people are ingesting, buying, selling or giving contaminated foods to their kids. The industrial chemical that has claimed the lives of at least four infants in China has been found here in fish feed, snacks, dairy and candy. There are growing concerns that it may have been used as a pesticide on imported vegetables. The nation — indeed, the region as a whole — is facing a food safety crisis of unprecedented pervasiveness.

Yet months after South Korea’s citizens cried for the ouster of the Lee Myung-bak government, claiming his decision to open the local market to U.S. beef created a public health risk, there is no visible uproar over the melamine issue. The Korea Food and Drug Administration carries out its tests of products containing imported dairy, announces the results, and then — presumably — consumers change their behavior. No one is up in arms about Mars shirking the news that melamine was found in its products (the levels detected are supposedly too low to pose a health risk), and no one is blocking the ports where Chinese products are arriving, as happened when the first U.S. beef shipments arrived.

The belated reporting of the melamine crisis has revealed a gaping vacuum where morals, corporate responsibility and oversight should have been. China’s citizens are crying out, though due to the country’s media sieve, the outside world likely hears only a muffled echo of the true anguish felt by the tens of thousands of parents whose babies are suffering in hospitals across the country.

Why Korea’s people have chosen to stay silent on an issue that affects them more intimately and poisonously than mad cow disease ever will is a mystery that invites speculation: Perhaps, like smoking, the idea of gradually-accumulated chemicals causing harm is not immediate enough to stir panic. Or it may be simply that there’s just no real way to pin this one on the wildly unpopular President Lee. Either way, Korea would do well to meditate on what it means when the country’s largest trade partner is growing increasingly toxic, and spend an extra moment thinking about what might be floating in the milk.

[Edited on 2008.10.06]

Japan Opens New Tourism Office, Will Ease Screening Procedures

Autumn in Kyoto. Photo by El Fotopakismo.

Autumn in Kyoto. Photo by El Fotopakismo.

SEOUL — AS ASIAN ECONOMIES SWIRL in a hot mess tipped off by the collapse of Wall Street’s monoliths, Japan is looking to travelers in hopes of stimulating local business. Backpackers and camera-toting gawkers may not save the Nikkei, but if the island nation achieves its goal of 20 million visitors annually by 2020, that can’t hurt.

To achieve such ambitious figures, the government announced yesterday the launch of the Japan Tourism Agency, according to the Daily Yomiuri. The agency is to serve as a directive towards breaking down “bureaucratic sectionalism” and attracting visitors by easing screening procedures. The Daily says that latter bit may create friction with the country’s National Police Agency and Justice Ministry.

Japan’s visitors totaled 8.35 million in 2007. The year before, the country ranked seventh in Asia in terms of overseas tourist arrivals.

United States citizens can visit Japan without a visa for a period of 90 days for tourism purposes only, and travelers must have an onward/return ticket. Visitors from the States who have old-fashioned passports should still be admitted under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), which South Korea recently joined. Japanese and Korean citizens, however, must have chip-embedded documents.

Important fun-fact? Citizens of VWP-member countries still require a visa if entering the U.S. via land or sea port, according to a Q&A from Korea’s Donga Daily.

Sokcho/Mt. Seorak

View entire set on flickr

Heading WEST: How the New U.S. Program Isn’t As Welcoming to S. Koreans as it Appears

Incheon Airport, Departures Platform. Photo by wZa.

Incheon Airport, Departures Platform. Photo by wZa.

SEOUL — NEWS OF THE UNITED STATES’ plan to allow 5,000 South Koreans annually to work, study and travel independently in the country on 18-month visas buzzed along local wires shortly after the State Dept. issued a media release Monday. But there has been a notable lack of commentary on the announcement here, even from South Korea’s famously controversy-prone ‘netizens.’ The “Reader Opinion” sections are empty, and Web portal Daum’s WEST forum hasn’t seen activity for 10 days.

By the silence, we can perhaps guess there has been a general nod of approval.

But while the WEST (Work, English study, Travel) program may entice loads of South Koreans who are looking for improved language skills and a leg-up in the corporate world, it doesn’t live up to the rhetoric of facilitating “cultural exchange” — due mainly to one binding guideline:

Participants will devote at least 450 classroom hours to structured English language training and coursework focusing on American business practices and business procedures, U.S. corporate culture, and general office management issues.

While I can only interpret vaguely, what I read is this: no art students, no English lit kids, no history majors et al. The U.S. is interested in bringing young Koreans bent on business, finance and management degrees; the rest are on their own.

The stipulation will hardly whittle the number of applicants, but it will certainly influence the dynamic of any cultural interaction; a good number of the Korean nationals that U.S. students have the opportunity to talk with will all be chasing after the same thing. Of course, skilled Korean artists and academics of other disciplines can still be accepted as exchange students directly by their universities, but won’t have the luxury of time for travel and exploration afforded by the new WEST visa, known as J-1.

It may be a futile effort, but I think local institutions should be lobbying for an amendment to the new agreement that allows for more breadth — or, if not, start pushing now for a wider doorway for American students when Seoul draws up its reciprocal program.

Looking West: Britain’s Revised Immigration Policy

London in movement by fabbriciuse

London in movement by fabbriciuse

SEOUL — IT’S TOUGH BEING UNWANTED, especially when you’ve fallen out of favor with a major Western power. Britain’s migration advisory committee published a list Tuesday (local time) reducing the number of skilled jobs open to non-EU migrants to 700,000 from 1 million. Effective November, the fields of medicine, secondary education and social work will be closed to those from outside the European bloc, along with 300,000 other jobs. Whether this is a sign of growing economic protectionism or a simple case of discrimination (or both) depends on your perspective. But it seems clear that in an increasingly borderless world, some parties are still trying to hold the line.

They have, of course, left some channels of immigration open — notably to sheep shearers and ballet dancers (Guardian via FP Passport):

It is thought the changes will cut the level of skilled migration to Britain from outside Europe by between 30,000 and 70,000 people a year.

The main list of shortage areas identified by the group of labour market economists is headed by construction managers involved in multimillion-pound projects, civil and chemical engineers, medical consultants, maths and science teachers, and ships officers to staff a newly growing merchant navy.

It also includes unexpected occupations such as skilled ballet dancers and sheep shearers. The experts heard evidence from the Royal Ballet that very few British applicants had the required level of artistic excellence or aesthetics.

The other exception will enable a group of 500 Australian and New Zealand shearers who travel the world working on up to 400 sheep a day to continue to operate in Britain, where they shear 20% of the UK flock.

The MAC acknowledged that one way to address these shortage areas, aside from turning to “low-paid immigrant labour,” is to increase pay rates for those positions. Citing budgetary reasons, they said such a solution is off the table for now. Another answer might be to both raise wages and allow people from outside the EU to compete — leveling the playing field, allowing immigrants to improve their lot and potentially giving the economy a boost. That idea didn’t seem to occur to the committee.

Having just moved to a nation where the word “foreigner” is used in wide brush strokes and where finding work as an outsider in anything besides teaching English is often prohibitively difficult, I can perhaps say based on anecdotal evidence that such closed economic policies are not only the result of buried nativist tendencies (Korea for Koreans, Britain for the Brits) but have the effect of perpetuating such notions. A blunt example is Japan’s refusal to grant suffrage to the over 600,000 ethnic Koreans living in the island nation, many of whom are second or third generation — a policy that pokes at the still-gaping wound of colonial history.

If migrants, expats and other such folk are regulated out of having a full role in their adopted society, they are also shut out in more emotional ways. Tension bubbles, leaving rifts in a culture that could otherwise be rich in mingling hues. It is a backwards step in a globalising world, and one that Britain should consider carefully.

Journal Entries: In These Shoes

Map of Oregon, Vodka Tonic

Map of Oregon state. Seattle, September 2007

SEOUL, Sept. 3 (5:25 AM at our apartment) — I WOKE UP THIS MORNING thinking about the fact that it was almost exactly one year ago today that I was loading up the car and heading down to Portland. I’d just graduated from college and had spent the previous month both in LA visiting friends and up in Seattle riding my bicycle on familiar streets, absorbing all the places I had missed while living in Wisconsin. I was confused as to the direction of my life, but not so concerned as to yet feel anxious. Things, however messy and uncertain, felt free.

It seems funny now to think that on the other side of the world (indeed, as I pen these very words) my parents are driving down in the same direction I myself was headed all those months ago. They’ll stop for breakfast at the Country Cousin, as I did, and watch the fog sweep its misty fingertips over the coastal hills as they drive out along Sunset Highway. Their final stop is Cannon Beach  — also the last leg of my own West Coast journey, as Nick and I came full circle before returning home.

Strangely, I can’t help feeling a bit envious of my parents. Seoul is in its last throes of summer, still hot and cacophonous. I want to take my wife somewhere calm and beautiful, where the air is all seawater and pine.

What I remember most about the trip last September was that it was lended a sense of momentousness, though not by any artificial attempts to make it so. Big things were shifting all around us, and driving south gave Nick and I the escape — the distance — we needed to sort it all out and become ourselves. Those four weeks lasted months and years. I will never forget the sunset at Capitola.

I must admit that I wish I could recapture something from that time, hold it now as I struggle with a new kind of confusion and this adjustment to the working life. It seems painfully ironic that despite being halfway around the globe, my current experience in some ways feel less adventuresome than my time in Portland, Oregon. Perhaps it’s simply a matter of perspective. Either way, I could use a good road trip.

Continue reading ‘Journal Entries: In These Shoes’

In Seattle, of Bicycles and Tree Assassins

photo by miss nikichan

SEOUL — IT WAS A GOOD THING that my life fit neatly into two large neoprene tubs. The apartment left room for little more. When I unfolded my built-in “kitchen” table from the wall, it blocked the entry way. The place had only one sink (in the bathroom) and my stovetop fit inside a small closet. But the floors were hardwood, and the location was prime: 42nd & Brooklyn, two blocks from campus.

About three years ago this September, I was hauling my stuff into this tiny space, picking up the pieces of a life I’d left behind in Seattle and bringing back some of who I’d become in Korea (this would be after my second sojourn in the country), along with a newfound love from Beijing: cycling. My future wife and I had rented old, rattling bicycles from a hotel during our trip there, and spent a day cruising around the city’s famous hutong. We stopped near Qian Hai Lake to eat peaches we’d bought from a local vendor, passed by the Drum Tower and wound up at a nameless tea shop on the west side of the Forbidden City. I felt a sense of freedom and ease that I’d long abandoned for a stick-shift.

One of the first things I’d done when I returned to the States was resurrect my old GT mountain bike from its resting place in my parents’ basement. Some oil and new tires and, behold! — it spins again. Not long after I moved up into my apartment, I could be found humming along the Seattle pavement, rushing unhindered by traffic through the city’s concrete veins.

My favorite route was the Burke-Gilman trail; a 20-some-mile path running from Fremont, through the University District and out along Lake Washington towards the northeastern suburbs of Kenmore and Bothell. For a good chunk of the ride, the trail was shaded by lush trees, a good number of which were deciduous — notably so, as much of the Northwest is wrapped up in firs and evergreens. As summer gave way to fall, I remember rolling over the brown pulp of jilted leaves, defying the fog and seasonal drizzle.

One particularly brisk morning, the orange, angular light of dawn cut through the changing foliage, highlighting the burning colors of the trees. It was absolutely beautiful, so much so that I nearly lost track of where I was going. Despite my pace, I felt frozen for a moment, my thoughts strung up between the technicolor branches.

The memory makes this recent news all the more saddening: someone is killing trees along the Burke-Gilman. The Seattle P-I reports:

Quarter-inch holes spaced about an inch apart were drilled around the tree trunks. Three poplars and two Douglas firs are dead, and two firs are starting to turn brown. The leaves on the poplars turned black, Mead said, indicating a rapid death likely caused by an herbicide.

“They were pretty thorough,” he said of whomever damaged the trees. “It would indicate a professional” did the poisoning.

The deaths of the trees reportedly came after unidentified persons in the neighborhood requested the trees be taken down.

While it may be true that in the grand scheme of things the downing of a few trees is minuscule, what is ultimately more depressing is the attitude this act reflects; the viewing of nature as an obstruction, and a disrespect for public space. It is perhaps a similar mentality that drives urban sprawl, that great plowing of humanity out where the wilderness would be better left to its own devices, the compartmentalizing of land into blocks of private property.

Here in Seoul, as in Beijing, greenspace is a hot commodity — my wife and I stumbled across a patch of grass the other day and took a picture as proof that it actually grows here. Without the luxury of yards, Seoul’s residents enjoy what little nature the city affords by picnicking next to the river or up in the mountains, and savor the few breaths that smell of pine instead of smog. In contrast, it seems that even some among the famously eco-friendly Seattlelites have gotten spoiled; perhaps they ought to go out for a ride, and remember what makes the city what it is.


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